It's coming full circle.
The earliest known evidence of communicating through writing dates back to 3300 B.C. It wasn't complete sentences, but rather a series of characters and drawings on the walls of darkened caves long uninhabited.
As humans became more and more civilized, greater and greater emphasis was placed on the importance of a well-written sentence. Naturally, before more modern inventions like the telephone, putting pen to paper was the most efficient and effective way to communicate.
Those who had the gift of writing were able to accomplish much more than those who couldn't. Having professional writing skills, especially in the business world, was considered a fundamental requirement. Technology had largely been the culprit in eroding the importance placed on the written word, but ironically it is technology that's bringing it back to life.
Okay, back to the full circle comment: Despite our ability to easily dial a phone number and talk live to just about anyone in the world at anytime we want, there are bus drivers risking the lives of their passengers to send a text message. We send novellas in e-mails to make a point. The latest generation of communication art is to grunt out text messages in acronyms and smiley faces to each other, even when we're sitting in the same room.
Somewhere along the way we lost our ability to write effectively, and the informality of electronic messaging hasn't helped. Sales professionals, I would argue, have the greatest opportunity to gain from being more effective in this area. The unfortunate reality is salespeople are some of the worst offenders.
I've personally witnessed poorly composed e-mails contributing to deals gone south, client relationships gone wrong, and conflict with support staff. Effective and efficient communication is a hallmark for the best sales professionals, and writing should not be the exception.
Today, we are interacting with more people than ever. More client contacts and a wider net of internal resources to communicate with are observations made by most salespeople today. The ability to write well, especially in electronic form, can be a major differentiator.
I'll admit a bias toward writing: My degree's in journalism, not business. I'm a writer by education and a business guy by trade. Perhaps I'm a round peg in a square hole, but nonetheless, I believe it's been a key ingredient to my success in sales.
So whether you are an account manager or the sales/marketing leader of a large team, here are a few of my golden rules—guidelines that apply to all forms of electronic messaging:
1. Keep it short. As a general rule, if you can't say it in less than a couple of paragraphs, you need another medium to share your message. Admittedly, there are a few exceptions to this rule (i.e., you know the recipient likes information that way).
I've seen way too many novels and attempts to have long conversations within e-mail. That doesn't help your credibility and usually just makes people stop reading your mail.
Lastly, please stop submitting proposals in e-mail format. It's tacky and unprofessional. Write up a professional proposal and attach it to a nice short e-mail with a succinct overview. The rule of thumb with e-mail is to keep messages short and to the point.
2. E-mails, conflict, and anger: the perfect storm. Most people have been involved in the classic ping-pong match of a heated e-mail argument at least once in their career. Molehills turn into mountains. It didn't take me long to realize things tend to get further from (not closer to) resolution when you battle over e-mail.
For some reason, we tend to get really brave over e-mail, saying or positioning things in ways we never would in person. If you have to deliver a tough message, ask yourself why you're using e-mail. Is it because it's easier for you that way? If that's the reason, then have a live conversation instead
3. Think before you send. With everyone always moving so fast, technology has allowed us to get sloppy. Whether it's a follow-up to a meeting, an idea, or a request for time on someone's calendar, make it count. Ever get that person who sends you a series of e-mails as they think out loud? Pretty annoying. Think through how you want to concisely convey your message, just like you were writing a letter that might take three days to get to the recipient. Bottom line? Do it once and make it count.
4. Grammar does matter. Just because it's electronic doesn't mean proper spelling and grammar aren't applicable. Typos are never excusable just because you're moving fast. Read your e-mails back to yourself and make sure they make sense, are spelled correctly, and help reinforce the fact you actually attended school.
There's also too much reliance on spell check. If it's a really important message to a client, have someone else proof it. A second set of eyes is always a smart move on any important document or message.
5. CC: a lethal weapon. Aside from the sender of e-mails that are always marked important, nothing annoys me more than individuals who copy everyone in the world. As a rule, individuals should only be CC'd when they might benefit by the information, whether or not they're required to take any action. In other words, it's not urgent or important for them.
On the same note, also think before hitting reply all. These two functions alone are major culprits for overstuffed mailboxes. Also, CC shouldn't be used as a universal tattletale mechanism. Although effective at times, you should have made all other attempts to resolve directly with someone before exposing their shortcomings to the entire company or to their boss. This may take you into the territory of rule number two if handled inappropriately. It's a vicious cycle.
As sales professionals, we put a lot more time and energy into improving our face-to-face skills at the expense of our writing ones. But proposals, presentations, case studies, internal funding requests, and basic follow-up e-mails all are a critical part of our effectiveness. If you want a leg up over your competition, put some time into this part of your game.
SMM columnist Bill Golder is executive vice president of sales at Miller Heiman. Available for keynote speaking opportunities, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 877-678-0397.